Knoxville and Me – a hate-love relationship

Knoxville is the home of the flagship campus of the University of Tennessee, whose sports teams, called the “Volunteers” or “Vols,” are extremely popular throughout the entire state.  It is also the major source of the hate part of my relationship with this city. The Tennessee Technology Corridor, home to 13 research and development firms, stretches across 7,000 acres (2,800 ha) between West Knoxville and Oak Ridge, where I live.  That’s part of the life of this city that if I don’t love, I at least appreciate very much.

I love that Knoxville is home to a rich arts community and has many festivals throughout the year. Its contributions to old-time, bluegrass and country music are numerous, from Flatt & Scruggs and Homer & Jethro to the Everly Brothers.  Contrast this genre with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra (KSO), established in 1935, which is the oldest continuing orchestra in the southeast, as well as the Knoxville Opera.  If that’s not enough music for any area resident, in its May 2003 survey of “20 Most Rock & Roll towns in the U.S.”, Blender ranked Knoxville the 17th best music scene in the United States and, in the 1990s, noted alternative-music critic Ann Powers, author of Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America, referred to the city as “Austin without the hype”.

Although there are really way too many “festivals” (a term which I am defining very loosely since the setting and attendance of those I have visited vary quite widely) in the Southeast US, some of the more popular and well known held in April alone in Knoxville include the 17-day Dogwood Arts Festival and the Rossini Festival, which celebrates opera and Italian culture. There is also a range of large and small ethnically related festivals and fairs that celebrate, among others, the region’s African American, Latin American and Greek American heritage and communities.  Although I have not attended many of these events, just the sheer variety, plus, more tellingly, the lack of overtly religious-related events in the list, have started what is the tenuous love relationship that I have developed to date with Knoxville.

Since moving to the South ten years ago, Husband and I have developed a real interest in the Civil War.  After Virginia, more of the battles of that “War of Northern Aggression”, as it’s referred to by some Southerners, occurred in Tennessee than in any other state. Most of the larger battles in Tennessee did not take place in the Knoxville or Nashville proper areas.  I am sure that there are many fine historical and educational institutions where I could have learned more about the history of the Nashville area, when I lived there, if they had been as widely available, well publicized, and reasonably priced as they are here, closer to Knoxville.  Aside from the wide array of cultural sites and activities in the area, the major reason I have really started to love the part of the Volunteer State where I now live, is the plethora of nearly first hand educational opportunities I have enjoyed, including many that really informed me about the history and development of Knoxville.

First settled in 1786, Knoxville was the first capital of Tennessee. The city struggled with geographic isolation throughout the early 19th century, though the arrival of the railroad in 1855 led to an economic boom. During the Civil War, the city was bitterly divided over the secession issue, and was occupied alternately by both Confederate and Union armies.  I saw remnants of the battlements from the Battle of Fort Sanders when I toured the UT Archaeology Research Lab a couple of years ago, including artifacts discovered during the excavation of that site in advance of the construction of a “Sorority Village” at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.  As a result of the finds, the Sorority Village plans had to be slightly modified to commemorate this key location in the Siege of Knoxville, though it’s possible that some of the cannon emplacements may still have ended up under the one of the newer and therefore more popular sorority houses. More recently I have made the acquaintance of Dennis Urban, President of the Knoxville Civil War Roundtable and have attended several of his interesting and well-researched presentations describing some of the colorful citizens of Knoxville at the time.

And speaking of colorful citizens, both corporate and individual, movie theater chain Regal Entertainment Group and Scripps Networks Interactive, broadcast and production home of HGTV, DIY Network, Food Network, Cooking Channel, Travel Channel and Great American Country, are both based in Knoxville.   The largest privately held company based in Knoxville is Pilot Flying J, the nation’s largest truck stop chain and sixth largest private company, which is owned by the Haslam family.  Members of this illustrious family include Tennessee’s current governor and former mayor of Knoxville, Bill Haslam, and Jimmy Haslam, who recently purchased the Cleveland Browns professional football team.

Following the war, Knoxville grew rapidly as a major wholesaling and manufacturing center. Between 1880 and 1887, 97 factories were established in Knoxville, most of them specializing in textiles, food products, and iron products. By the 1890s, Knoxville was home to more than 50 wholesaling houses, making it the third largest wholesaling center by volume in the South. The Candoro Marble Works, established in the community of Vestal in 1914, became the nation’s foremost producer of pink marble and one of the nation’s largest marble importers The post-war manufacturing boom brought thousands of immigrants to the city. The population of Knoxville grew from around 5,000 in 1860 to 32,637 in 1900. West Knoxville was annexed in 1897, and over 5,000 new homes were built between 1895 and 1904.

Knoxville’s reliance on a manufacturing economy left it particularly vulnerable to the effects of the Great Depression. The Tennessee Valley also suffered from frequent flooding, and millions of acres of farmland had been ruined by soil erosion. To control flooding and improve the economy in the Tennessee Valley, the federal government created the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1933. Beginning with Norris Dam, TVA constructed a series of hydroelectric and other power plants throughout the valley over the next few decades, bringing flood control, jobs, and electricity to the region. The Federal Works Projects Administration, which also arrived in the 1930s, helped build McGhee-Tyson Airport and expand Neyland Stadium. TVA’s headquarters, which consists of two twin high rises built in the 1970s, were among Knoxville’s first modern high-rise buildings.

Knoxville hosted the 1982 World’s Fair, one of the most popular world’s fairs in U.S. history with 11 million visitors. The fair’s energy theme was selected due to Knoxville being the headquarters of the Tennessee Valley Authority and for the city’s proximity to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The Sunsphere, a 266-foot (81 m) steel truss structure topped with a gold-colored glass sphere, was built for the fair and remains one of Knoxville’s most prominent structures.  Knoxville’s downtown has continued to develop since that watershed event and now includes the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and the East Tennessee History Center.  Since 2000, Knoxville has successfully brought business back to the downtown area. The arts in particular have begun to flourish; there are multiple venues for outdoor concerts, and Gay St. hosts a new arts annex and gallery surrounded by many studios and new business as well. The Tennessee and Bijou Theaters underwent renovation, providing a good basis for the city and its developers to re-purpose the old downtown, and they have had great success to date revitalizing this once great section of this city that has endured more than its fair share of economic ups and downs.

Now, back to the hate part of my relationship with Knoxville.  The University of Tennessee (UT) does have its good points, including the aforementioned Archaeology Research Lab and its externally funded research centers that partner with major progressive institutions such as the Appalachian Collaborative Center for Learning, Assessment and Instruction in Mathematics, the National Institute for Computational Sciences, the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis, and the Center for Ultra-wide-area Resilient Electric Energy Transmission Networks (CURENT).  UT and the nearby Oak Ridge National Laboratory also jointly conduct numerous research projects and co-manage the National Transportation Research Center.

For me, that is the best part of what The University of Tennessee’s Knoxville campus can contribute to my quality of life.  On the downside, Neyland Stadium, where the Vols’ football team plays, is one of the largest stadiums in the world, and Thompson-Boling Arena, home of the men’s and women’s basketball teams, is one of the nation’s largest indoor basketball arenas. I have not attended a game played by any of these teams, mainly for fear of being sickened by the sea of orange and white (the school’s colors and not my favorites anyway) I would be forced to confront in any of the seats in those megastadiums.  This effect is only slightly ameliorated in my mind by the prior presence within those programs of recently retired quarterback Peyton Manning and Patricia Sue (Pat) Summitt.

Pat Summitt is the former UT women’s basketball head coach who now serves as its head coach emeritus. She coached from 1974 to 2012, all with the Lady Vols, winning eight NCAA championships (an NCAA women’s record when she retired), and surpassed only by the 10 titles won by coaches John Wooden of UCLA’s men’s basketball dynasty and Geno Auriemma who still coaches the women’s team at the University of Connecticut, longtime rivals of Pat’s Lady Vols. She was named the Naismith Basketball Coach of the Century in April 2000. In 2009, the Sporting News placed her at number 11 on its list of the 50 Greatest Coaches of All Time in all sports; she was the only woman on the list. In 38 years as a coach, she never had a losing season.  In August 2011, Pat Summitt announced that she had been diagnosed three months earlier with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.  Despite the diagnosis, she did complete the 2011–2012 season in a reduced role, stating “There’s not going to be any pity party and I’ll make sure of that.” In 2012, in recognition of her many accomplishments, unusual for a woman in so many ways, Pat Summitt received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Arthur Ashe Courage Award.

I find Pat Summitt, who could boast of a 100 percent graduation rate for all her players who finished their career at UT, and her admirers to be admirable and generally broad-minded and forward-thinking, at least as far as Southeastern Conference (SEC) Sports fans are concerned.  The same cannot be said of SEC football fans, however.  On December 1, 2008, Lane Kiffin, former head coach of the Oakland Raiders, was announced as the new head coach of the Tennessee Volunteers football team.  This was his only year at UT, a year in which the Vols finished the season with an unforgivable, at least to the rabid and rowdy UT faithful, record of 7-6. During this short period of time, according to Wikipedia anyway, Coach Kiffin made a series of “controversial” decisions, at least in the eyes of some UT alumni.  For the 2009 season, UT paid $3.32 million to all assistant football coaches, the highest combined salary among public schools.  Kiffin’s departure for USC (the University of SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA, not south Carolina) in 2010 after just one season as head coach of the Volunteers upset some students and fans of the University of Tennessee.  Hundreds of students rioted on campus at the news of Kiffin’s departure. Knoxville police and fire department were brought in after students blocked the exit from the Neyland Thompson Sports Center and started several small fires.

One of our personal vehicles was also affected by this outpouring of Orange and White anger.  Husband drove our maroon and gold (USC’s team colors) Ford Expedition to his job at the Nissan production plant in Smyrna, Tennessee.  It also sported a souvenir USC Trojans license plate, which apparently made it a visible and highly desirable target to be egged by some disappointed UT football fan or fans where it was parked in the lot next to his office on or about on or about January 12, 2010, that infamous day when Lane Kiffin departed “the Hill” as the heart of UT’s main campus is known by students and alumni.  I have carried forward a mild hatred of that place and that institution ever since, which has been softened of late by exposure to the more genteel UT fans who are now my neighbors.